American Horror Story, Ep. 1.10, “Smoldering Children”: What now? Cards?

American Horror Story Review, Season 1, Episode 10, “Smoldering Children”
Written by James Wong
Directed by Michael Lehmann
Airs Wednesdays at 10:00 pm ET on FX

Warning: Spoilers

There’s very little to complain about in “Smoldering Children.” The wonderfully directed episode is a highlight of the season that wraps up several mysteries, moves the plot in exciting directions, and leaves you wishing Constance were the main character.

The opening flashback to 1994 finds itself in the house with Larry, Constance and her children. The scene brings back Adelaide who hasn’t been around for five weeks. She has few lines in the dinner scene, but they’re enough to make her character missed.

As rare a treat it is to see all these characters interact with each other, the real reason for this flashback is more sinister as it explains how Larry got his burns. The rest of the episode devotes itself to Ben’s penance to his family and his plans for improving their living situation. This week also follows Constance’s struggles with the law, Larry’s sacrifice for love and Violet’s somber revelation.

Writer James Wong gives Constance more to do this week than just play the creepy lady next door. Her past finally starts to catch up with her as she jumps through the legal hoops of homicide accusations. This plotline also puts Larry to work, allowing him to branch out from his one-dimensional rut. There was a touching moment when Larry is in the basement and talks with the recently deceased Travis. As much as Larry pines for Constance, he still finds compassion for her former lover. He also has a chance to see his also deceased family again. It’s a brief scene, but it works to set Larry in a different light. He’s not quite a victim, but he’s definitely not a villain as he once was at the beginning of the season.

Jessica Lange is amazing, but that’s nothing new. It’s still fun to watch her play the darkly operatic tones of Constance. She steals every scene and takes it in the most uncomfortable of directions. Unlike Larry, Constance is a cruel and unapologetic character. Lange had her figured out from the very beginning for every action feels perfectly calculated. The final scene between the two characters in the prison beautifully illustrates this.

As great as the final scene is, the best part of the episode is Violet’s revelation of her own death. Though this was predicted weeks ago, it wasn’t too obvious. This suspicion, especially in the first half of this episode, makes the big reveal all the more difficult to bear. When Violet finally sees her body, it’s powerfully tragic. It’s an interesting moment, because even though her soul is safe (for now), seeing her hidden corpse is no less disturbing.

Even more impressive was the direction of the scene. Director Michael Lehmann didn’t opt for a cheap scare with Violet’s lifeless face. It is one the scariest visuals of this show, but is presented in a very conservative fashion. Ironically, It’s dragged out a bit, playing the horror more subtly than similar scenes in other horror movies, like the beginning of The Ring (girl in closet).

But no, the scene takes its time and braces the audience for the body by revealing it in a long shot first. After allowing the audience to take in the initial shock, it then pushes in to a gritty close-up. The reserved score allows the raw image to take effect without overdramatizing it. When the audience sees the body again in another long shot, there’s no score at all, just some off-screen dialogue. It renders the image less horrific while amplifying the melancholic nature of Violet’s lonely and forgotten body.

The next scene with Violet and Tate takes this momentum of melancholy and uses it to punctuate the sad realization of Violet’s death. She’s a prisoner, and she knows it. Taissa Farmiga’s facial expressions really sell the despondency imploding within her character. It’s subtle, because she never actually expresses disappointment with the idea of spending forever with Tate. Yet, it’s obvious she’s already lamenting her eternal future.

The show then takes a minute to explore this post-climactic “now-what?” atmosphere, joining Violet and Tate to play a dull game of cards. As bizarre as the situation is, this scene is a reality check for Violet and the audience. It places the audience in Violet’s shoes by imprisoning it in a moment void of any romance or adventure. Just cards. Because now, what’s left for her besides this?

Violet’s death does solve one problem by promising to keep Vivien in the house. Vivien will likely stay when she learns of Violet’s death and her imprisoned spirit. It will also be interesting to see how Ben will explain Violet’s dead body to the juvenile court, but this feels like season two territory.

With the last two episodes approaching, it’s difficult to predict how the season will resolve. The show has already wrapped up the mystery of Rubber Man and Violet’s fate. Even the finale, titled Afterbirth, alludes to the aftermath of an arc-long event. Where is this show going? Where do you want it to go? Leave your comments in the box below.

Ryan Clagg

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